I haven’t picked up an Ann Brashares book since I read the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series when I was a young teen. I’m very glad I remembered her name from my teen years, because The Here and Now did not disappoint me. I really didn’t want to put it down even though I needed to get to other things, so I read it whenever I had a spare moment.
Usually, a book with a prologue only serves to be a huge red flag for me. Along with epilogues, it often serves as a heavy handed way of dealing with the events of the book, allowing an author to quickly “fix” everything that will happen or has happened. Thankfully that was not the case with The Here and Now. The prologue sets up the story with a third person account of a girl arriving on the banks of the local river under strange circumstances. It doesn’t take time to explain the way that the girl got here, just that she appears seemingly out of nowhere. We are shown what happens and only understand as much as Ethan, the boy who observes this, does. As the years pass, Ethan begins to wonder if he didn’t just imagine what had happened. There’s no proof that it did, except that he’s missing the sweatshirt that he gave her. Their paths cross a couple of years later, and the narrative switches over to Prenna.
Prenna’s world is very strict. They come from a world ravaged by a blood plague and they worry about when it will start again. Although her people had access to the technology to send those of their population immune to the plague to the past, they don’t seem to be taking advantage of their knowledge. They live by a rigid set of rules that forces them to exist in the past without really living. They can’t go to places of worship; they can’t go to a doctor outside of their community, so if you’re sick you had better hope that the community has what you need; you can’t be included in print, photography, or video because you’re not from this time; and you can’t call attention to yourself and your community. You keep your head down in the past, because you’re lucky to be alive. Perhaps the most difficult rule for a young woman to follow is the rule that does not allow for wriggle room: you must not be physically or emotionally intimate with anyone outside of the community. This is a young adult novel, so Prenna breaks that rule rather quickly.
I’ve read several reviews that say the romance was contrived and falls under the umbrella of “insta-love,” but I have to disagree. Although it does seem to happen rather quickly in the book, a total of two and a half years have passed since the end of the prologue. Prenna and Ethan have been friends long enough for an attraction to form. They were not two strangers suddenly thrown together. The romance continued to build as Ethan and Prenna work on a mystery they have been tasked to solve. I felt that it was very realistically written and was not the focus of the novel. Both characters know that they had something more important to work on other than whether they should physically advance their relationship or not. The little moments that they do have are very sweet because of this.
The Here and Now tries to keep the reader guessing about a few mysteries, but I unfortunately had them pegged as soon as a whisper of them occurred in the novel. They were rather obvious to me but it did not affect my enjoyment of the book. The choice of Ann Brashares to write in first person present tense was a good one; the writing effortlessly got me into Prenna’s head and kept me there. I got attached to her story and her connection to Ethan, and it was definitely bittersweet when I finished The Here and Now. I enjoyed the mild thought-provoking questions that The Here and Now posed about time-traveling. Is it the responsibility of time-travelers to change the past when they know what happens in the future? Prenna wrestles with that question and the decision of her community to stay out of the happenings of the past. They exist together, but it’s almost parallel to each other because they don’t interact except in small ways. The community is fearful of even the smallest actions that may change the future for the worse, even though they can’t imagine what is worse than the plague they left behind. However, since there is no option for them to return to the future, why live this way when you won’t even know how the future has changed, if it even changed at all? Prenna has to come to terms with what it means to come from the future and how they live in the past. As Prenna finds out, even the smallest actions have a ripple effect.
I really enjoyed The Here and Now. Although it didn’t fully explain how the time-traveling worked, I was able to fill in enough blanks to create my own understanding of how it worked in the novel. The ending was bittersweet but a satisfying conclusion to the story and characters. Although I do wish it was the first book in a series, I know that what worked so well for one novel would have been watered down in a series.